President Trump should have disclosed Michael Cohen’s hush payment to porn star Stormy Daniels as a financial liability last year, the government’s top ethics watchdog concluded Wednesday, potentially opening the President up to legal complications.
David Apol, the acting director of the Government Ethics Office, said in a letter appended to Trump’s 2018 financial disclosure form that a payment Cohen made to “a third party” on behalf of the president during the 2016 election meets the requirements for a reportable “loan.”
The letter does not explicitly state what Cohen’s payment was for, but the president’s legal team and Cohen himself have previously acknowledged he paid Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about allegedly having sex with Trump in 2006. Cohen has also admitted the hush payment was issued 11 days before Trump’s election.
While Apol didn’t say so in his letter, the revelations mean Trump could have committed a crime by not disclosing the liability in his financial disclosure report last year. Apol referred his findings to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for any “inquiry” the Justice Department may pursue into the matter.
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment.
Trump acknowledged in the disclosure form for the first time that he fully reimbursed Cohen last year for “expenses” ranging between $100,001 and $250,000.
Ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani insisted Trump disclosed the repayments to Cohen in this year’s report out of “an abundance of caution.”
“It’s not a loan, but he reported it any way,” Giuliani, the latest addition to Trump’s legal team, told the Daily News, directly contradicting Apol’s findings. “It was in fact an expense, like paying a doctor. If you owe a doctor $2,000 and you pay him back that’s not a liability.”
Giuliani claimed Trump didn’t list Cohen’s payment to Daniels in last year’s form because he didn’t need to.
“There’s nothing to report,” Giuliani said.
Asked if Trump is worried, Giuliani delivered a one-word rebuke: “Nope.”
Attorney Michael Avenatti, who represents Daniels in a civil lawsuit seeking to void her nondisclosure agreement with Cohen, said the financial form “conclusively proves” that Trump, Cohen, Giuliani and the White House deceived the “American people.”
“This was NOT an accident and it was not isolated,” Avenatti tweeted. “Cover-ups should always matter.”
Cohen, Trump’s longtime attorney and personal fixer, had his Manhattan office, home and hotel room raided by FBI agents last month as part of a criminal investigation launched by federal prosecutors in New York. The agents seized a cache of records, including communications between Cohen and his clients, according to reports.
Whether Trump committed a crime by not disclosing the Cohen payments last year is a matter of whether or not he purposely omitted them, according to experts.
“Trump may be wondering today whether the information DOJ seized from Cohen’s office included any emails or other documents showing he knew of the debt when he filed last year’s report,” former Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub tweeted.
Shaub, who served as the ethics czar during President Barack Obama’s second term, noted that Apol’s letter to Rosenstein is tantamount to a “criminal referral.”
Shaub also recalled that, while still serving as ethics director, Trump attorney Sheri Dillon asked him if Trump could submit his 2017 disclosure without certifying its contents as true. “The strangest moment in my entire career,” Shaub said.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a legal watchdog group that first flagged Trump’s disclosure omission, welcomed Apol’s findings and swiftly filed a criminal complaint against the President, calling on the Justice Department to look into whether he “knowingly and willfully” failed to report required information.